The extras

One bad Hollywood experience is just one too many.

By Robin Strober

Published November 15, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

As I watched my peers effortlessly sprint up the Hollywood film-industry ladder, I myself could never quite tap into the big leagues. I temped at Disney where I clipped mouse-related mentions for the company newsletter. I worked as an assistant and sometime script doctor to Menahem Golan, a crass and bearish filmmaker who was remaking "The Threepenny Opera." We flew to Cuernavaca, Mexico, so he could court Raul Julia (his pick for Mac the Knife), and on the plane ride down, Menahem blasphemously rewrote Kurt Weill's lyrics, trying his damnedest to convince me that "hussy" rhymed with "pussy."

But none of it would prepare me for what would possibly be the worst work experience of my life. This is the story of how one bad Hollywood experience was just one too many.

It is 1989. My cousin Howie calls. He's a line producer with a keen radar for out-of-work production people, and he finds me at home wondering how I am going to pay last month's rent.

"Working?" he asks in his smug, self-satisfied way. "No," I quietly answer. "Great. I need someone to do extras casting. What do you say? It's right up your alley. Dark comedy. Great cast. Really left-field. It's this young, talented director, Adam Rifkin, and he wants interesting-looking extras. You'd be great at it."

"I don't know, Howie -- I've never done casting."

"Piece o' cake," he assures me. "Rob Lowe's in it. Judd Nelson and Jimmy Caan. I'll show you the ropes. You're gonna love it. I'm messengering the script over right now."

The script is called "The Dark Backward" and I am immediately repulsed by its infantile, misogynous drivel. The premise: In a bleak, not-too-distant future, a loser comic -- probably the worst stand-up comedian in the entire world -- grows a third arm out of the center of his back. This discomfiting abnormality yields him some notoriety, but as loser's luck would have it, his accordion-playing sidekick gets discovered by a sleazy talent scout and he's the one who gets to go to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. I call Howie back and tell him I'm not really into it. But Howie's a producer and he talks the talk ...

Week 1

Howie sets me up in a wood-paneled production office in Culver City. He instructs me to take out ads in Variety and Billboard announcing an open casting call for "odd-looking people." I ask him what-all he means by "odd." He smiles condescendingly, tells me that Adam will explain later.

I share the office with a production coordinator who is Jimmy Buffet's sister and a frizzy-maned production accountant who flirts with anything that moves, including and especially the 19-year-old production assistant who surely rides his surfboard to work. During the relative calm of pre-production, Howie spends his time on the phone haggling with vendors about prices. He is especially pleased with himself when, one morning, he finds a place that sells the cheapest toilet paper in L.A. And then he gets it for even cheaper.

The production manager marches in and, with a trumpeted bellow, announces that the director is on his way up. When Adam enters the room, I mistake him for a P.A. because he is small and sickly looking with a jet-black ponytail, round silver glasses, stooped posture and skin the color of unbleached flour. Eager to begin my casting duties, I officiously grab a pad and pen and introduce myself to him. I ask him about the odd-looking people. What does he mean by "odd"? How many? What shapes and sizes? Ages? The production manager rushes over and tries to shoo me away. Adam stares down at his black Converse hi-tops and mumbles something about getting back to me later.

Later never comes. Days go by. I notice that Adam is spending an inordinate amount of time with Harley, a sexy, Harley-driving production designer. They huddle together, discussing scenic art and swing shifts while I stare at the veneer walls and watch the production accountant twirl her frosted curls as she flirts with a new P.A. after the old P.A. gets fired for eating too much trail mix off the craft-services table.

Movie hierarchies are the same from set to set. The actors barricade themselves in their trailers and when bored, fuck the cute P.A.s. The P.A.s hang out with the A.D.s because if they're lucky and/or fuck the least Draconian of the bunch, they might get promoted, so they too can bark orders at people until their ears bleed. The lowest scum on the production totem pole (in order of fungibility) are: 1) the crafts-service people, who are often approached with the same wary curiosity as temps because no one knows, or dares ask, why they don't have "real" jobs; 2) the poor stiffs who clean the honey wagons (aka the stinky trailer bathrooms); and 3) possibly the most shunned, but essentially indispensable pariah -- the extras casting coordinator.

Twice a day, Howie comes by and asks me about the status of the extras. I tell him there is no status. There are no extras. Adam is surrounded by so many layers of handlers and women and assistants, I can't get anywhere near him. The word out is that Adam is some kind of bibi auteur, a dark genius in dark clothes with a plethora of filmic knowledge that oozes from his pimply pores. In a town obsessed with youth, a 22-year-old director is a spin doctor's wet dream.

Week 2

"Open call for unusual-looking extras. This is your chance to be in a Fellini-esque, Lynchian-type art film. If you look different, bizarre or strange, please come to the parking lot at 10125 W. Washington Blvd. for auditions. $40.00 a day."

Talk about misleading. Little does anyone know, this "art" film is to be directed by a guy who probably still wears a retainer. Howie finally gets me a list of extra "types": "20 tall & thin people who can juggle; two wizened Chinamen; a bouncer (big, but not cut); a very frail doorman; three homeless women; several women barflies who are nicer looking than the homeless women; 13 vagabonds; two Latino busboys; one limo driver; a cleaning woman; two manicurists; three barbers; six garbagemen; a tap dancer; a cocktail waitress; 10 blond boys and 10 blond girls."

I am told in no uncertain terms that none of these people, except for the 10 boys and 10 girls, are to be young. The older the better, the uglier the better, the more odious and odiferous, the better. I am sweaty with fear. I ask Howie if I can call some of the local extras casting agencies, but he forbids me, explaining that the lo-budge budget won't allow it.

It is 90 degrees and I am melting into the asphalt as I wait at my casting table in the parking lot. By some miracle, two dapper, elderly gents show up. One wears an ascot and a frayed blue blazer; the other an eye patch. They are sweet and I am saddened because they've taken the bus all the way from the Fairfax district and it is obvious that they are not here because they want to meet famous actors or harbor dreams of being discovered, but because they need the $40. They aren't particularly unusual looking, but they are undeniably old and I Polaroid them and give them forms to fill out with humiliatingly cheerful questions like: "Do you have any distinguishing features or marks?"

At home that night I think of a number of friends and acquaintances with strange and quirky personalities, but none with any particularly odd physical attributes. I call everyone in my Filofax, putting out the weirdo alert. The next day there are several messages on my machine from friends who know people who know crippled drag queens; Milanese artists with prodigiously aquiline noses; exotic dancers; tattooed 10-year olds; a guy with a peg leg; a 90-year-old bongo player ...

The next day I am out at my table in the parking lot and by midday a stream of people have sauntered through -- mostly young men with too much time on their hands. One guy wears his hair in an Alfalfa point, speaks with an Appalachian twang and on the questionnaire under "distinguishing features" writes, "Hair Dews" and "Little Baby Jesus." His name is Luther and he sends me a couple of very scary stalker letters signed "Mr. Luke" and "Crocker Kang." I Polaroid everyone just in case, and although I am amassing a huge file of photos, no one quite fits the bill. Principal photography has already begun and I am in a mighty heap o' trouble. I plead with Howie to let me talk to Adam. Just for five minutes. Howie glares at me through his Spielbergian spectacles. "Maybe you don't understand what Adam wants. So I'll try to explain it to you again," he says in an exasperated tone, leaning in close so no one else can hear. "He wants freaks. Go get him freaks."

One night, after a couple of beers in the production office, I am filled with a fleeting sense of courage and follow Adam and Harley out to her Harley. (Adam doesn't drive.) I shove the pile of Polaroids at him. He quickly flips through them while a disinterested Harley consults her diver's watch and yawns through brilliantly white teeth. "This isn't what I want. Don't you know anything? I want crippled people. I want amputees. I want people dripping with oozing sores. I want shriveled-up old men. I want freaks!!"

Freak you. I am out every night now, hunting down victims. I case the geriatric coffee shop at Kmart, the Pan Pacific Park, the retirement home on Melrose. I find the crippled drag queen in the bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, but I don't speak to her. I spot an eccentric-looking gent in a wicker wheelchair, but I walk on by. I see an elderly couple who look like they've been through unspeakable horrors, but I retreat back to my car. Could these people use $40 a day? Probably, but I don't have the heart to ask.

Week 3

We are shooting interiors on a dark, musty soundstage, and the Fairfax gentlemen are set to play patrons in a bar scene. They are a snappy bunch, long in the tooth and eager for companionship. Thankfully, they bring along some women friends who are ready to work. There is 72-year-old Bobbie Ann, with a self-described collection of "80 fantastic costumes and 30 fabulous wigs." According to her risumi, she was a model, clown, belly dancer, nudist and artist. We use her throughout the shoot and one day, during a slow spell, she deftly draws my portrait on the back of a call sheet, making me look like an old-time movie star. There's Junie Brown, who boasts the questionable ability to mimic Phyllis Diller, Marlon Brando and Ronald Reagan. Some of her special skills include exotic dancing and playing the harmonica. She's been on "The Gong Show" and has performed at the Holiday Inn No. 2 during the L.A. county fair. And we mustn't forget the very versatile Barbara Marx, a former showgirl who can play a dumb blond or a sophisticated lady. According to her 8-by-10 glossy, she's modeled mink on a Regal Fur commercial, has appeared in the film "Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Mars" and starred in the stage play "Pajama Tops."

Week 4

The shoot is becoming increasingly base. Judd Nelson's character licks the breasts of a dead woman and practically ejaculates on her. He and Bill Paxton "molest" three enormously bovine women in skimpy slips and garish makeup. Rob Lowe picks a piece of food from his teeth, inspects it and then pops it back in his mouth to hungrily ingest. The roach wranglers arrive, followed by the rat wranglers. Somehow Adam finds out that back in the day, Bobbie Ann had been a stripper. He instructs me to ask her if she'll bare all for the camera. I patently refuse and he storms off to ask her himself. A little while later, Bobbie Ann comes to me crying.

Week 5

Spending day after day in Adam's creepy, decaying netherworld seems to put everyone off-kilter. Even the most upbeat, chipper extras are depressed and lethargic. One night, near the end of the shoot, we run into serious overtime. We were supposed to end at 6 p.m., then 7, then, 8. The extras are tired and want to go home, but Howie refuses to release them. He is afraid that some of the featured extras won't return the next day, so they decide to finish the scene that night. Finally, at around 1 a.m., we wrap. I head for the production office to get the money-filled glassine envelopes to pay each extra. I open one. It contains $40.

"You can't give them $40," I say. "We went into major overtime."

"We can't afford any more," says Howie. "That's what they're getting. There's no more money in the budget."

"Then you go out there and tell them, " I say.

Howie glares at me. He will not budge from his swivel chair. "You're the extras coordinator. It's your job to deal with them."

Furious, I go out to the holding pen and hand out the envelopes. Some of the extras walk away without first opening theirs. But nicotine-stained Woody knows better. "Hey, lady. What's going on here? This isn't all we get." The remaining extras quickly open their envelopes. Lots of low grumbling and collectively head shaking. Slowly and deliberately, as if characters from "Night of the Living Dead," they move toward me, surrounding me in a jagged circle. "You good-for-nothing bitch," yells Woody. Woody, the man who had chatted me up for days, saying how sweet I was and what a pleasure it was to work with me, is now calling me a cunt. Another extra, a friend of Woody's, goes ballistic. "My dog just had open-heart surgery. They did a close-up on me, an extreme close-up. I should get more money than the rest of them. Give me more," she spews like a Norma Desmond manqui. I try to calm them. I tell them I have to talk to the producer and I slowly back out of the circle and head for the production office.

I am crying when I reach Howie's chair. "If you're not going to give them the money, you've got to go out there and tell them something. You're the producer. They're really mad and they won't go home." Howie's arms are tightly folded across his chest. I have to think quickly. "One of them, that tall guy without the teeth, he's calling the labor board," I wail. With that, Howie swivels himself up, tucks in his pink polo shirt and marches his compact little body out to the set.

"What seems to be the problem?" he asks the raging group. Woody walks front and center, clenching and unclenching his fists. "We want what's due us, man." Adam stealthily sneaks past us, using Harley as a protective shield. Howie looks at the extras with intense disdain. "You were told you'd get $40 and that's what you're getting." I hear the flatulent sound of Harley's bike as she and Adam speed off to their love nest.

Woody is not having it. "Dude, we've been here for 15 frigging hours."

Howie turns to me. "Bring them in one by one."

In the production office, Howie gives each extra an additional $20 for the trouble. When it's Woody's turn, he attempts to lunge across the desk at Howie, but a P.A. pulls him back. I find myself wishing he'd had at him.

It is after 3 a.m. when we're all sent home. We wouldn't finish shooting until a few days later, but I knew that night I was finished with Hollywood.

Before "The Dark Backward," I had often wondered where the extras came from and why they had chosen a job. Sure, the older folks came because it broke up the monotony of sitting alone in their stucco apartments, but what about the day trippers? These were the curious people who arrived out of nowhere on the morning of a shoot with their beach chairs and board games and plastic sippers filled with Crystal Light. Like Woody. He was a tall, thin, career extra with the ashen skin of a heavy smoker and the sketchy disposition of an ex-con, yet he wormed his way onto the set and nagged me to let him work.

I can remember how one day, during lunch, I mentioned that Judd Nelson would be in the next scene.

"Who's Jude Neilson?" he quipped.

"You don't know who Judd Nelson is? Don't you even go to the movies?"

He smiled and shook his head, "Doll, you can't smoke in the movies."

Robin Strober

Robin Strober is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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